Women writers get asked far more often than male writers whether their unlikable characters are unlikeable on purpose or the writer didn’t realise what she was doing, according to best-selling American writer Curtis Sittenfeld. I came across this statement around the time I finished Annabel Smith’s hypnotic second novel Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, which made the notion seem all the more absurd and maddening. I frequently found myself disliking Smith’s main character, Charlie Ferns. But I never for a second thought that this had not been Smith’s intention. Charlie can be frustrating and stubborn, but it is from these flaws that the book gets much its seductive tension.
When we first meet Charlie he has just been told his estranged twin brother Whiskey is in a life-threatening coma. Over twenty-six chapters – one for each letter of the phonetic alphabet – we trace the Ferns’ relationship from childhood to present day. Tales from the brothers’ early life are interspersed with what is happening in their present where Charlie is facing the prospect of his brother dying before he gets a chance to put things right. It is a compelling premise.
To be clear, despite finding Charlie a challenging character, I was rooting for him all along. He’s the younger, less cool brother of a boy who breezes through life. Whiskey is entitled and self-aggrandising where Charlie is intelligent and caring. Whiskey is the ladies’ man who drives the expensive car and lands the high-paying job. Their relationship is twisted by resentment and jealousy, but we learn Charlie has not been blameless its demise.
Smith doesn’t shy away from letting readers see the ugly side of her hero. He has a window of opportunity to redeem himself and repair things with his brother. But there’s a very real danger he won’t get the chance and a hint he may not rise to the challenge. Charlie is just thorny enough that as I read his story I thought: this could go either way. Through him, Smith brings a realism to the tale that ensures the reader never feels sure all will end well. It was masterful. I tore through it. As the book reached its climax, I found it impossible to put down.
Beyond the central relationship of the brothers, Whiskey Charlie Foxtrot examines a family that is full of secrets. Revelations lob, like grenades, into Charlie’s life. Every single character, be they a key family member or merely a bit player, is vivid and expertly described. Smith writes beautifully and democratically. No character is all good or all bad, and they are the realer for it.
Much has been made of the phonetic alphabet device in other reviews, but most agree Smith employs it seamlessly. Each letter is a memory with a story attached, and the slow count-down through the alphabet ramps-up the tension. As the chapters fall away like a grain of hourglass sand the reader knows Whiskey’s time is running out. Furthermore each chapter is a perfect little short story on its own. Chapter four, Delta, is a reference to Anais Nin’s erotic classic Delta of Venus, which the boys distribute illegally to their classmates. It is a funny and true vignette from life.
I was shocked to read Whiskey Charlie Foxtrot had clocked up about 20 rejections before Fremantle Press said yes. It strikes me as a good candidate to become an Australian classic that would stand proudly on shelves alongside the work of our best writers.
I am interested in reviewing debut novels by Australian women for the AWW challenge. If you have any recommendations please get in touch via the contact page.